During the vietnam war, the north-south supply route for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army was nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in honor of the country's communist revolutionary hero. The trail--sometimes a road, sometimes just a path through dense jungle--snaked along the border with Cambodia and Laos, roughly parallel to Vietnam's only national artery, coastal Route 1. Wartime legend is soon to become modern, concrete fact: a four-lane highway will be built in the tracks of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to connect the northern capital of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Its inevitable name: the Ho Chi Minh National Highway.
It's a major undertaking for a poor country like Vietnam and, at 1,690 km, one of the more ambitious road-building projects in Asia. Hanoi says the highway, to be completed in 2003, could alter the country in untold ways--a promise that has been taken very seriously, and not very happily. In fact, the project has become one of the biggest political footballs the country has kicked around in years. It has provoked a chorus of public protest, which is anything but normal in nonconfrontational Vietnam, and there have been sizzling debates in the usually compliant National Assembly. Government officials have publicly reproved one another, trading accusations of stupidity, dishonesty and lack of respect for the country's laws. It has been a remarkable exchange, says a Western diplomat in Hanoi. The political process in Vietnam has evidently undergone some fundamental changes.
Big infrastructure projects always move a lot of dirt, money and public passions. Yet national highways can do wonders for a country's development. Most recently, Malaysia's relatively modest national highway, 848 km-long, has linked long-isolated states and sparked an automobile boom.
The extraordinary aspect of the fracas over Vietnam's new highway is that its potential potholes are being publicly criticized when construction has barely begun. The government says an interior artery will open up the country's backward regions as no other project could. That's exactly what critics fear. Among their concerns: the highway will cut through some environmentally protected areas, displace regional minorities, lead to a massive influx of people from the coast and, possibly, spread hiv. Opposition to the highway can easily be interpreted as opposition to national development, says one critic of the project, Luu Duc Hai, vice-dean of environmental studies at Hanoi's National University. But as it is now planned, the highway is not in the national interest. The government intends to build the road using approximately $400 million of its own money, though critics think it will cost far more. Several international aid agencies, including the World Bank, have said they wouldn't support the project even if asked.
The proposal for an interior highway dates to 1997, but the project picked up steam only last year when floods devastated central Vietnam, causing more than 700 deaths and making Route 1 impassable at many points for weeks. Nearly everyone agrees that revamping Route 1 is impractical: it goes through some of the country's most densely populated urban areas, making compensation of displaced residents expensive, and it will always face major flooding problems. The former Ho Chi Minh Trail has neither of those drawbacks--but plenty of its own.
Environmentalists sounded the alarm when plans showed that the road would cut through or come near 10 environmentally protected regions, including Vietnam's first national park in the north and the Phong Nha nature reserve in the central Quang Binh province. (The latter is so famed for its endangered primates and bird species that unesco has proposed declaring it a World Heritage Site, an honor afforded to such treasures as Cambodia's Angkor Wat and India's Taj Mahal.)
Even worse, warns Frank Momberg, Vietnam program director for Fauna and Flora International, a British conservation group, will be an inevitable stampede of migrants from more densely settled areas to the unspoiled interior. A population boom would lead to wildlife poaching and deforestation. (Vietnam has lost a third of its forest cover in the past 15 years to logging and plantation agriculture.) This is an area internationally recognized for its unique plant and animal species and outstanding biodiversity, Momberg says. To build a four-lane highway through it will be nothing short of an ecological disaster.
Other cataclysms loom: for regional ethnic minorities, soon to be visited en masse by their compatriots, and for a public health system already challenged by an an estimated 250,000 hiv-infected Vietnamese. International experience, says Laurent Zessler, who heads a United Nations aids program in Vietnam, shows that new highways are a major conduit for the spread of the disease. Construction itself is guaranteed to be hazardous. During the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was one of the most heavily bombed tracts on earth. Many of the American bombs were designed not to explode on impact but when disturbed later by a cart or plow. Decades later, an unknown number are still live. Army engineers last month uncovered 600 unexploded bombs and land mines at a location in Quang Binh province where a highway bridge is planned. When authorities ordered the upgrading of a single road in Quang Tri province last year, 300 live bombs were found in a 1-km stretch and several road workers were killed in explosions.
State-run television is showing propaganda footage, eerily reminiscent of wartime, that depicts enthusiastic young volunteers swinging pickaxes to get the highway launched. The government is also starting to respond to the barrage of criticism. Opponents say the project was hastily conceived and then foisted on the public. They want more circumspection and more time. Instead of finishing the highway in three years, as the government plans, they recommend a decade. Last week, Vietnam's Politburo reportedly decided to reroute the highway to skirt the northern Cuc Phuong national park, and research will be done to study its possible impact on the Phong Nha nature reserve--important concessions on what appears to be a very rocky road ahead.Reported by Huw Watkin/Hanoi